To get an idea of how much Madrilenos like to go out and let their hair down, I am fed this one simple statistic: Madrid has more bars than any other city in the world -- six in fact, for every 100 inhabitants! Which explains why the city is buzzing most of the night. Where wine flows like water, merriment is bound to follow.
In the squares lit by street lights and a full moon, I feel unsurprised when I encounter a fire eater, a clown, a man dressed as Dracula dancing with a woman in a fairy queen costume, and people partying as if this was their last chance to live the stuff of dreams.
It is 1 am now and on my way home from a flamboyant night walk, I stop at Chocolateria de San Gines for a feast of chocolate con churros -- fried-dough pastry, some lean and knotted, others long, thick and especially popular in Madrid -- to be eaten, as instructed by the fastidious waiter, dipped in hot chocolate. As he deposits my order on the table, he says with a glimmer of pride, "This cafÃ© is most crowded between 3 and 6 am when clubbers come here after a heady bout of partying, for their final round of sustenance."
The sheer energy of it all speaks of a place that knows how to live.
Folks I meet, as I wind my way through the city's flamenco clubs, restaurants, pubs, bars and discotheques, inform me that although long, relaxed, family-centric meals are the order of the day here, I must not, at any cost, miss a sampling of tapas, a selection of small snack-style appetizers and savoury dishes, especially popular in the early evening.
Usually served with beer, wine or an aperitif, tapas in Madrid opens its gastronomic embrace to include more than the typical locally born tripe and Patatas Bravas -- or sautÃ©ed potato in spicy sauce. That evening, I find myself in the Mercado de San Miguel, a striking, wrought iron building from the 20th century, which doubles as a tapas bar during the evening. I end up scurrying from stall to stall trying Paella from Valencia, octopus from Galicia, seafood and fried fish with an Andalusian flavour, Catalan potatoes with garlic mayonnaise, pasties from Toledo and the emblematic olives and cured ham -- without which, friends inform me, a good meal is never complete.
Food, I discover, not unlike the books I read, is awash with messages, talking all the time. When it comes to tapas, its varied nature speaks of the openness that typifies Madrid.
The epicurean godfather by my side knows exactly which bar to head to and for what. With a ring of certainty in his voice, he says, "It's Almendro 13 for traditional Spanish tapas, Casa Patas for dinner with a flamenco show, Taberna Taxacoli for the biggest pintxos in town, Casa Labra -- which has been around since 1860 and was the favourite of poet Fredrico Garcia Lorca -- for bacalao or cod."
And as I bar trawl in pursuit of new food specialties and culinary delights, I agree tacitly with Epicurus, who once famously said, "Pleasure is the beginning and the end of living happily."